Saturday, 29 November 2014

Bouncers - Do We Ban Them Now?

I was asked, in an email from my brother, my opinion as to whether the bouncer should be banned from the game, in the light of Phil Hughes death. He argued that the easiest way to make the game safe was to ban the bouncer in much the same way as football has banned certain tackles. He also expressed a concern for the legal ramifications in terms of law suites bought against authorities of the game in the event of future injuries and their need to prove a duty of care. The following was my response.

"As I indicated initially, a very complex issue and one that my love of the game and more than forty years of involvement will no doubt cloud in my response.

Let me say from the outset, that I understand where you are coming from on several fronts. For the majority of players and their loved ones, being confronted with their own fragile mortality has been a shock. After all, if an accomplished player can die in such circumstances, how do the mere mortals with far lesser skills cope with the possibility when they run out to play this weekend?

The media and in particular those wishing to use the media to turn his death into an advantage, have made me quite ill in the last 48 hours.

My perspective on this is explained best in an article I wrote last night. Read it for my full opinion

It's hard to address your concerns.

Jacques Kallis evading
No, I don’t think the bouncer should be banned. The restrictions currently placed on it the bowling of short-pitched bowling are clear in Law 42.6 of the Laws of Cricket, leaving the determination of what is considered dangerous in the hands of the umpire but within much stricter rule limitations than at any time in the history of the game. Intimidation, under the laws, is considered to be the deliberate and repetitive bowling of short-pitched bowling or bowlers deliberately placing the batsman in danger. The bouncer has been a part of the game since over arm bowling first came into existence. That, in itself, is not a reason to fail to question its appropriateness but it does illustrate my next point. In all of that time, with all the likely millions of balls bowled at batsmen that were short-pitched, a miniscule number of batsmen have been hurt, less have been seriously hurt and almost none have been killed. Bear in mind also, that for the first hundred years of the game, the batsmen faced the same type of bowling, bowled more frequently and with less control from officials, protected only by a cloth cap. Many eminent Test players have long argued that the wearing of helmets has increased the risk to batsmen by making them more prepared to take on aggressive shots against short-pitched bowling, in the belief that they were protected from serious injury.

Phil Hughes injury was so rare, that doctors at St Vincent's Hospital had never seen this injury. One of them is quoted as saying there have only been 100 deaths from blows delivered to this region of the body in the knowledge of recorded medical history. Now, I don't know where that information is kept on record or how accurate it is, but it at least points to the fact that this was a bizarre and freakish accident.

Your mention of banning tackles in football needs a better context I think. The particular tackles that have been banned were causing repeated injuries and were being effected with the express purpose of hurting the player being tackled and therefore take them out of the game. That is what anyone would call an unacceptable risk. Yes, the bouncer is intended to intimidate but intimidation is not the intent to hurt the opposition player. The intention is to threaten them, to distract them from their game. In that regard, if we legislate to remove the bouncer from the game, do we also prevent batsmen from hitting the ball as hard as they can at close in fieldsmen  to scatter them? Do we ban players from fielding closer than a certain distance? Batsmen "attack" a bowler by hitting them high, wide and handsomely as a means of intimidation, to remove their effectiveness. Other sports have reduced risks by introducing changes and protective equipment. All horse riding sports require helmets, yet people still suffer head injuries after falls from horses. Do we ban mountain climbing? I don't want to be frivolous or extend the examples but mention these examples as a means of illustration.

I guess it boils down to acceptable risk and the likelihood of that risk being ongoing and escalating from risk to actual danger and increasing incidence of injury. Sure, isn't one death enough? It’s a good point. The trouble with that thinking is that in reality, if we change the rules on the basis of the infinitesimal, where do we stop without making life unbearably complex and impossible to live. I could be killed walking along the footpath by a driver losing control of his vehicle - I would, in fact, be more likely to be killed in that manner than being killed by a cricket ball if I was still playing. How do we legislate for that? Risk is part of everyday life and its one of the ways in which we might determine how mature or adult a person is ... by the reasonable and considered assessment they make of risk. Often, the more confident and certainly the more highly skilled we are, the more risk we are prepared to take but that is a personal decision. For instance, I don't play the game anymore, because the risk assessment I make places injury and illness as more likely because of my age, level of physical fitness and the manner in which damage caused from playing would impact on my lifestyle. It's just not worth it. I played when I was younger, because my skills etc. made any risk acceptable.

We have already legislated against short-pitched bowling over many years to restrict the risk to batsmen and turn it into a battle of skill. This is why the rules were changed after Bodyline, where the English bowled eight balls an over aimed from the batsman's chest upwards, with eight men on the leg side in catching positions. This is why the general understanding of how many bouncers were considered to be "fair" in an over was taken from the perception of umpires and reduced to a numerical value (two per over) in the 1980’s (I think that was when it happened).

In my opinion, Phil Hughes injury and subsequent death has created such a reaction for three main reasons:
·        his age
·        the somewhat irrational yet understandable fear that this injury could happen to any cricketer, anywhere
·        the ease with which a life can be ended, even when doing such an ordinary and well accepted activity

As Queensland wicketkeeper Chris Hartley said in an article he wrote for Cricinfo “You've trained yourself for countless hours to react successfully in that split-second, so sure you acknowledge that potential danger but you dismiss it almost instantaneously. You never really see it as real. Until Tuesday. Now it is very real and I, like many others, have been shaken to the core.”
Ricky Ponting hooking
Another element, which you haven’t raised but others have, is the protection that banning the bouncer in at least junior cricket would present to children playing the game. The problem comes when those children, usually in their middle teens, move into senior cricket. If they haven’t grown up in the game learning their own best way to counter the short-pitched delivery, they will suddenly be in far greater danger. Most cricket clubs run their coaches through accredited coaching courses which include specifics on teaching young players different methods of playing against short-pitched bowling. Those that can naturally play the cross batted shots to aggressively combat the ball are coached in the best and safest techniques to do so. Those that can’t, are taught evasive actions. My experience is that this is what happens. Checking with several mates involved in coaching confirmed that was so. The emphasis is on using whatever skills are natural to react appropriately.
As to the legal ramifications, you may well be right. It is not only the way of sport these days but certainly the way of the world. I wonder if fast bowlers could argue a restriction of trade? Who knows but yes, it’s a consideration.
More broadly, I’d hate to see the bouncer go out of the game. As a player who was a ducker and weaver because I didn’t have skills to play aggressive shots at the short ball, I hated bouncers, yet, my favourite batting position was opening because I loved the contest. I think all cricketers feel that way. Conversely, fast bowlers hated my cover drive, although the only risk was to their ego and bowling figures!
I’m not sure my arguments will hold much sway with you but be reassured, I am just as sickened by the manner and lethalness of that delivery on Tuesday which killed Hughes, in all reality, on the spot. The image of it, seen once only in my hotel room after I had finished a gig in Mungindi, was a realisation of any players worst fears and not one I wish to view again. Today, when my son goes out to play, both of us will have an edge to his five hours on the cricket field we didn’t have before this week. However, if I honestly assess the facts, I should be a lot more worried about driving the 5000kms around the country side I will have completed in three weeks by the time I sit down for a beer on Sunday week.
Thanks for involving me in your concerns. I guess my bottom line was expected. I just hope the journey to there at least made sense."